Botanical Wonderland

A Botanical Wonderland Resides in the World of Rare and Unusual Books

The Smithsonian’s librarian and antiquarian Leslie Overstreet time travels, sharing centuries of horticultural splendors


By Leslie Overstreet, Smithsonian Libraries

What gardener hasn’t experienced firsthand the wonder and pleasure—as well as the occasional mystery and frustration—to be found in the world of plants.

This is true as far back as history records and even further, for plants are the essential foundation of the world we live in. They provide our food (and the fire to cook it), medicine and materials for clothing, tools, homes and furnishings. They have sustained and enhanced human life both physically and aesthetically through our entire history as a species. In art and myth, it is clear that the earliest civilizations—in Egypt, the Middle East, India, Asia and the Americas—cultivated not just food crops and medicinal plants but also pleasure gardens, celebrating them in decorative vases, wall paintings and textiles, as well as in song and story…